High in the tower, above the forest and the fields, I scour the vague terrain for fires. Always at night. Drones do it during the day. For some reason, the human touch is required after dark. Don’t ask me why. No one tells me anything, except this: “Just do the work. Do not question the work.” You might call me a fire spotter.
I open the pipeline, calibrate the goggles, stare down the sights of a full-bleed vision machine. I merge with the void, floating free from the tower, or so it seems. The feeling of weightlessness is immense, and I am one with the machinery. The sky recedes, the forest is no more. I move my body, but I don’t feel it. Do you know what that does to me? It divides me. It forces me to spot myself out there in the wilderness. I stalk my own ghostly outline under cover of watching for fires.
There is an event that is typical for the tower. It is patterned after the archetypal chooseyour-own-adventure model. Which reality to believe? Whose ontological cuisine will reign supreme?
The dark matter of the void tinkles and sparkles, gold dots beaded on a black-velvet curtain. The dots seek solace in one another, massing to form shapes, patterns, word clouds, sound castles. An immersion loop emerges from the hazy glow. It’s razored from a beloved dystopian science fiction film, something about the fascistic nature of privatised government security corps. A film so old, no one remembers its name, even the diehard fans, who simply refer to “it” in hushed tones. (They just warm themselves by the embers; signifiers are unimportant).
The film is from the monolithic heritage era, forged in the precedented times, whenever that was.
Above the immersion loop, a face floats free, disembodied and spectral, a diaphanous cloud wafting high above the endless dark sea. Hot on the heels of virality, the face belongs to someone preternaturally young, a person born long after the film was released.
The face critiques the film (I mean, its voice-activated code-wrap does), cancelling it in real time.
“Woeful politics. Terrible hair. Misguided relationships. Gratuitous pec-sex flesh.
Appalling violence. Only for gorehounds. Insensitive. Boring. Laugh-out-loud sad.”
I watch the talking face-cloud with fascination as it contorts itself into outraged shapes. Its features are smug and doughy. I listen to the arguments made in bad faith, the skim reading of the film’s tropes, the righteous indignation at the fumes emanating from a cultural product created in a time that no one even remembers except through virtual reconstructions.
The diatribe does not go unnoticed. It creates a disturbance in the void, a ripple effect. Pulsed reactions start to slice through the blackness, brush fires in the wilderness generated by hordes of acolytes stuffed inside the folds of the network.
The turbocharged outrage fries the code. It grinds the machine to a halt for a few seconds. That counts as a revolution, these days. Cultural capital is taken very seriously. It is jealously guarded. When change is no longer possible in the political realm, erased by inscrutable supply chains, robo-networks and sentient code farms, aesthetics is all that remains.
Then it’s over.
The face winks out like an expired Chinese lantern in the night sky, and the hordes retreat to their lairs. Traces of the skirmish remain. I see willowy wisps of smoke in the stark digital distance, residue of the codefry. No sparks, embers or glow. Still, I call it in. It might be the start of something new.
The Gloss answers. (That’s what they call The Voice at the Other End of the Transmitter. Do not ask me why. I just work here.)
“Sit tight,” The Gloss says, in neutral, metallic tones. “This one will pass.”
Inside the “cab” (that’s what we call the control room), there is a kitchenette, the bulk of the monitoring equipment, a small lavatory, a sofa-bed.
It is now dawn.
I can see a swarm of drones waiting to relieve me, hovering just beyond the mountain
range, a morphing, dark shape swaying from side to side. A locust raid, ready to suck the marrow from my bones.
I extend the “bed” part from the “sofa” bit. I lie down on the bed, close my eyes. I don’t know how much time has passed since I first came to the tower.
I sleep, all through the day.
My dreams are filled with monster-mutant flies and super-hybrid bees. The collective sound they make is a massed hive-hum, a squarewave harmonic hell. I guess you could call it a nightmare. The sound has been imported into the dream from the noise that the day-drones make when they are scouting for fires. The cab is not soundproof. I think The Gloss wants me to suffer.
When the evening hits, I wake for my shift.
I strap on the goggles, the void resolves, my body disappears, et cetera. The same immersion loop appears, the one from the night before, razored from the ancient film, plus a talking face, but this time the features are different. They belong to someone older, impossibly ancient, someone who may even have been alive when the film was created.
“This film is prescient,” the face intones. “It is savage. It predicted America’s collapse under the Orange Orangutan. The constant unflinching displays of hyperflesh represent deep satirical strikes at the heart of body fascism. The body is America.”
Wounded heritage pride is immediately salved.
The coast is clear.
No more smoke, no more fires.
You thought you were suffering from déjà vu, but no, not quite. Alter vu.
Every hot take is a “destination”, so let me explain it like this.
You arrive at a particular place.
You absolutely know you’ve been to this place before.
It might be a cherished childhood park or a favourite bar or café.
You haven’t been there for years, decades, but you know the place, alright. You know it intimately.
That’s why it’s so shocking to realise that fundamental details have changed. It’s like seeing through the eyes of a different person.
The street curves to the left rather than to the right (you absolutely know the lay of this street, you’ve walked it many times before). The high-rise that once dominated the skyline is no longer there. Was it demolished? You check the news, the public records, but there is no trace of a high-rise ever occupying those coordinates in time and space.
Yet your recall of it burns like a tracer bullet in the wormholes of your mind.
It wasn’t a memory. You predicted it.
Remember the blue dress?
Was it gold or blue? Shimmering or dark?
You saw gold. Was that down to the calibration of your monitor? The light in the room?
You saw blue. Were you high? How was your emotional state? Lower than a snake’s belly?
Yanny vs Laurel, you remember that one. Blue Dress Mark II.
No visuals this time. Auditory. A robot voice found in the wild.
Who called to you? Laurel or Yanny?
Whatever you heard was all to do with the mechanics of the ear, the experts said, with what you expected to hear, your cultural background, what you’d been exposed to already. Something like that. Or else it was an AI playing silly buggers with the collective psyche.
Discordians say there is a trickster entity who messes with the realities of humans. Now you see it, now you don’t (that sort of thing). Reality blindness. You lose your keys. You look everywhere. Wait, there they are, right in front of your eyes, on the kitchen bench, where just a second ago there was nothing (you swear).
The tricky deities have multiplied. There are mischievous swarm-gods born every few seconds with just a tweak of code-string.
The blue dress was a momentous occasion, a rift in space-time. Future generations will remember it as the pivotal moment when the material world began to disintegrate. For the first time, there was mass awareness that there was no such thing as consensus reality. Everything that has happened since then has flowed from that moment. The virus poured through that crack.
Live inside a bubble, shout into the void. Atomised and infected. Sovereign citizens are brain-boiled in hyper-passion. They start wars inside their heads. Karens expect the world to bend to their will. They hurl their toys from the cot when it becomes clear that no one cares. So they start cults and exorcise reality with ease. They can do it because the tools are available.
Anyone can. Strap on the goggles and see.
Blue dress, gold dress. Yanny vs Laurel. Hatchet jobs and critical rehabilitation. Spot fires in the digital wilds.
In the future, everyone will be cancelled for fifteen minutes.
I take a break. I put down the goggles. I want to go for a walk, but I can’t because I’m confined to the tower. State orders. Believe me, to descend to the ground would be more trouble than it’s worth.
The tension is palpable. Something must give. I’m going stir crazy. I only have a limited amount of space to move. A small platform surrounds the cab. I’m so high up I can’t see the ground. When I stand on the platform and stare out at whatever lurks beyond, I can feel the data wind on my face, the icy pixel beams.
I must admit, I’ve been neglecting my duty of late. I’m sick of the fires. I have crisis fatigue. It happens. You grow inured to the apocalypse. Then, before you know it, you’re in a post-truth world.
Tonight, I’m watching the heavens, no longer the forest and fields. Fires be damned. The sky is empty and clear. My predecessor, the prior Keeper of the Tower, said that she regularly saw golden orbs hovering in the sky over the valley yonder. Golden orbs with rings of red fire streaked around the middle.
“This is Crown Land,” she reminded me. “Closed to the public. There are no hoaxes out here. Just you, your mind and the naked eye.” If she says she saw orbs, then she saw orbs.
“They hover over the dam,” she said. “They suck up the water with some kind of beam. Then they are gone in an instant, turning ninety degrees in a micro-second, shooting straight up into the sky.”
I myself have never seen them. I think it’s because Muskovite satellites blanket the sky. Take a time-lapse photo of the sky and it will be ruined by long lines of light. The satellites. There are so many of them. Starlink polluting the heavens. There is nowhere to turn, now. No outside.
It was different in my predecessor’s day.
What about the naked eye? The one we champion as the unfiltered truth?
I don’t think the orbs will come out to play when the Muskovite sats are in full force. They will hang back, wait for the tech bro and his space armada to die a death. Then they will announce themselves.
My predecessor believed that there were cracks in the bandwidth. You had to concentrate but with enough willpower, she said, you could prise them open and then you could see into the beyond. She was ahead of her time.
She said our turn will come (she meant me, my generation). She admitted it is far more difficult now.
“Be patient,” she told me, on my first day in the tower, whenever that was. “Soon, this simulation will become untenable. They will have to release us from the cage. They will have no choice, because we are beginning to suspect the truth. But you know this, don’t you? You yourself have seen how the filters have already been eroded.”
“The blue dress?”
“Yes, the blue dress. It was an early warning system. They allowed us to glimpse the light. We slowly found out that we were not alone. When the filters are truly erased, and we can see clearly for the first time, we will discover that the xenomorphs sit right besides us and always have. We will find out that they are not carbon-based but that they are made of time, light and space. We will learn that they can pass right through our bodies, as unobtrusively as wi-fi signals. Actually…”
She broke off, looked towards Orion. Her countenance was blank, distant.
“What?” I said. “What is it?”
She snapped back into focus at the sound of my voice. Her eyes were like laser beams drilling hot death into my brain.
“Remember,” she said, “do not call them extraterrestrials. That’s divisive language. It buys into a media-driven co-opting of meaning. It’s clickbait. Spit it out. Call them ultraterrestrials instead. They have always been with us. They will always be with us. They don’t come from space, but within.”
There is no one else I can talk to about such matters.
Where she is now, I cannot say.
Recently, during a technical glitch, the verified faces were briefly locked from the void. We glimpsed a different reality. We lost the grotesque who-you-know networks, the lickspittles, the weird “imagine all the people” condescension aimed at the poors.
No more celebrity immersion loops beamed down from on high. No more caring and sharing. The human skin-suits were cracking, the lizard kings revealed.
When Kanye announced his presidential run, Samuel R. Delaney dropped his new novel. Only one was a hoax.
Custom selfie face masks print your ugly mug onto the fabric. Pull the mask down and it’s like you’re peeling off your face.
Welcome to my nightmare.
An app for Apple glasses makes the skin of everyone you see appear translucent. Veins, blood, bones, the works. Perhaps there will be porn made for the inside of the body. Outside-body sex will become passé.
Another app for the glasses paints a hideous, toothy smile onto the mugs of everyone you see. It makes you want to rip their faces off. Anyway, what is there left to smile about? Hell is being co-opted into someone else’s idea of “fun”. The Karens, those little shanghaiers, would be proud.
In Japan, fearful of viral droplets being passed around on their rollercoasters, they tell you to “scream inside your heart” while submitting to the big dipper. Who doesn’t want to cry out loud in these terminal times? Vocal screams shoot diseased drops through the air and into the mouths of those who have removed their selfie faces, so do it silently. That’s what they’re trying to say.
Yell into the void.
Come up here on the tower and look for orbs with me. God knows I could use the company.
Oil is sentient. Ennio Morricone died. Even I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m just spouting random code, now. I’m more data than flesh.
Kanye went to Elon’s place and they posed for Grimes, who snapped them chilling beside a giant glass sculpture of Maria, the robot from Metropolis. They tractor-beamed the photo to the poors. You know, just two megarich bros hanging down with a supersized fetish object. Normal peeps.
(Zoom in to see G. There she is, crouched low, reflected in Maria’s legs, convinced she’s snapped one for the ages.)
All this lunatic trio can see of the world is each other. They are lost inside the Mariareflections, in love with themselves, deep within the refractions generated by the lens of the one-way vision machine that skylarks their immortal image straight into the retinas of we, the people.
We, the hangdog goofballs hiding in the folds of the network. All we see when we look into the night sky is Starlink.
OK, I’d best get back to it. I’m becoming tense and irritable.
I have to be connected at all times, you see. That’s the rule. Besides, my skin hurts when I’m away. Something to do with overstimulated flesh. Also, there might be that one fire that changes my life, but if I’m out here on the platform dreaming of glowing orbs, I’ll never find it.
Oh. Did you think I was watching for fires to keep you safe? Please.
I return to the cab. I don the goggles, disappear inside the vision machine. I stare hard at the forest, the scrub, the harsh, untenanted land. I wait for darkness to descend, the void to numb my brain. I wait for the spot fires to burn my face with the angry indignation of a trillion white-hot takes.
Why did I say “don” just now when I could’ve said “put on”? Why do Americans say “oftentimes” instead of “often”? That’s just weird. They say that language matters, that it’s a virus, that it has power.
Indeed, language can put the verbal equivalent of a medieval ruff around your neck. It can also lock it in a wooden stock at the public square with thieves and charlatans lining up to pelt your face and murder your dignity.
See the conga-line of people waiting patiently? They carry putrid old tomatoes, eggs, maggoty slabs of meat, missiles to humiliate you and make you sick as a dog. Look more closely. One’s holding an axe.
Promise me something. When this is all over, tell me that you will still care. (I know that you don’t, but I’m pretending that you do.)
If I lost you now, your anger or your love, I don’t know what I’d do. Because the cage is about to open, you understand, and I don’t want to take the first step alone. Please don’t ghost me. Put flesh on my bones. Lord knows you owe me that.
When the Pentagon released state-sanctioned UFO videos, everyone became an expert, but even the New Weird Ufologists cannot see the entities that have always been. The wi fi ghosts. The null people. The in-between ultraterrestrials of an alternate reality. They will learn.
Towards the end of my shift, someone scatterbeams a question into the void.
“What’s the story from your childhood that says the most about who you are today?”
Everyone answers excitedly all at once, gold sparks dancing around the black-velvet curtain.
It’s a game, of course. Build a community when all hope has been lost. Share your funny anecdotes, warm the cockles of your heart.
One day, when I was fifteen, I was in German class. When the teacher turned his back to write on the blackboard, I took the opportunity to climb out the window. It was a stunt designed to elicit laughs from my mates.
From outside, I threw crude hand signs at the teacher’s back. I stood on my head so that only my feet could be seen. I jumped up and down, disappearing from view. Now you see me, now you don’t (that sort of thing).
Everyone watched me with blank expressions. No one laughed.
The teacher turned around. He saw me acting the goat, and he didn’t even boil over. He was impassive. They all were. It was weird. Like their power packs had been switched off.
He simply continued teaching as if I was never there. Nothing is more shameful than indifference, I tell you.
I decided to stay outside.
In my mind, I never returned.
Cover image: (and all other photos) by Simon Sellars